On Sunday, June 28, 2009, the pilgrims who went on a tour of Italy returned home. Most of the group are from San Francisco, CA, and most were young. They were joined by other pilgrims from the East Coast, Canada and England.
The pilgrims arrived in Venice on Tuesday, June 16, and immediately departed for Padua, where the ancient Basilica of Martyr Justinia contains the relics of Apostle Luke the Evangelist. The pilgrims sang the megalinarion before the relics and prayed for their loved ones. The ancient church, built by Byzantine architects, houses the relics of St Justinia and of many unnamed martyrs of the 14th century.
On Wednesday, June 17, the guide, Priest Alexei of the local parish of the Moscow Patriarchate, met us. He told us about the history of Venice, noting that it was Venetians who led the 4th Crusade, which, instead of liberating the Holy Land from Muslims, stormed and looted Constantinople. As a result, many Orthodox holy things ended up in Venice. The batiushka led the pilgrims to several churches where the relics of saints are kept. It is worth noting that the veneration of the saints and especially of their relics has fallen drastically among Catholics. For this reason, Catholic clergymen greet Orthodox pilgrims with great enthusiasm, bringing out our common holy relics for veneration. That is what happened at the Church of St John the Merciful, Patriarch of Alexandria. After a moleben performed before the saint’s relics, the Catholic priest brought out a part of the relics of St John the Baptist and a glass reliquary bearing two thorns from the Crown of Thorns of our Savior. The same day the pilgrims prayed before the relics of St Marina (known as Margarita), St Zacharius, the father of John the Baptist, St Athanasius the Great, and in a Greek church, following a moleben, the priest brought out a finger of St Basil the Great from the altar. This made a great impression on everyone, and one of the young pilgrims said that he was blessed by the hand of the man who composed the Liturgy!
That day, the pilgrims visited the Church of St Mark the Apostle and Evangelist. This church is a copy of the Church of the Twelve Apostles in Constantinople which was razed by the Turks, giving us an idea of the splendor of the original. Over 2000 square meters of the church are decorated with Byzantine mosaics. After singing the laudation to the Evangelist, the pilgrims venerated his tomb.
The next day, the worshipers headed for the Venetian Lagoon islands. Deviating from the itinerary, the pilgrims stopped by the Monastery of Great Martyr George, where they venerated the relics of the saint in the main monastery church. That church also contains the relics of First Martyr Archdeacon Stephan and those of a multitude of other saints. Remembering Protopriest Stefan Pavlenko, a beloved priest who baptized several of the pilgrims, after singing the troparion and kondakion, a short moleben was served for the health and salvation of Fr Stefan and others bearing the name of that saint. The day continued with an exploration of the Lagoon, with a visit to the Isle of Murano, renowned since the Middle Ages for its glass, and the Island of Burano, where the relics of Great Martyr Barbara are kept.
On Friday, June 19, the pilgrims headed for Rome, stopping in Ravenna on the way, which was at one time the capital of the Byzantine Empire. In addition to two magnificent Byzantine churches, the travelers visited two baptisteries, one Orthodox and the other Aryan. The pilgrims came to understand how difficult it was to live during the years of the Ecumenical Councils, when Orthodoxy coexisted with heresies.
Arriving in Rome on Saturday, the pilgrims headed for the catacombs of Holy Martyr Sebastian. It is believed that it was in these very catacombs that the relics of the Chief Apostles Peter and Paul were kept during the persecution of Christians; after the year 313, the relics were ceremoniously brought to their final resting places. Unfortunately, the pilgrims were unable to venerate the relics of St Alexis, Man of God, since a wedding was being performed in the church dedicated to his name at the time. The pilgrims later went to the so-called “Patriarchal Cathedral” of Apostle Paul, where his relics are located.
The pilgrims prayed at all-night vigil in the Church of Holy Great Martyr Catherine, located next to the hotel.
On Sunday, June 21, the early Divine Liturgy was celebrated by the leaders of the pilgrimage, Protopriest Yaroslav Belikov and Priest Ilya Gotlinsky, in St Nicholas Church of Rome, whose Rector is Archimandrite Pavel (Fokine). Fr Pavel is known by many of the pilgrims from his time as Rector of St Nicholas Church in San Francisco.
After Liturgy, the voyagers visited the Church of St Clement, third Pope of Rome. Pope Clement was exiled to Chersones on the Black Sea, where he met his martyric end. The relics of the saint were found by SS Cyril and Methodius when they made their missionary voyage to the Khozar tribe, and they brought them back as a gift to the Pope of Rome. This ancient church is listed in the inventory of church ordered by Emperor Justinian, and it is a late 12th-century church built on the foundations of the earlier church mentioned in Justinian’s list. The relics of St Clement are found there, as well as the relics of the Enlighteners of the Slavs, SS Cyril and Methodius. It was touching to see the young pilgrims who graduated from SS Cyril and Methodius High School in San Francisco praying at the relics of the protector of their alma mater.
The pilgrims then headed for another papal church: the Lateran Basilica. Across the street from that church is the Scala Sancta, the “Holy Stair,” which the Savior descended after His sentencing to crucifixion by Pontius Pilate. This marble stair was brought from Jerusalem by St Helen and established in Rome. Our pilgrims ascended the stairs on their knees in accordance with local tradition; Our Lord Jesus Christ descended these same stairs for our salvation, and we sinners ascend on our knees, recognizing our unworthiness, to greet Him. The ascent is performed slowly, and on each step pilgrims pray for the forgiveness of their sins, and for their loved ones.
The Lateran Basilica, which for several centuries was the Papal Residence, contains a great many things holy to Orthodox Christians, including the heads of SS Peter and Paul. Thereupon the pilgrims visited the Church of St Helen, containing her relics, and the prison cell where the Chief Apostles were held before their martyrdom.
On Monday, the pilgrims visited the Vatican. Describing the Cathedral of St Peter would take an entire article. Still, it is worth noting some of the main holy items: one of the nails from the Cross of our Savior, the point of the spear which pierced Jesus Christ on the Cross, the Veil of St Veronica, the relics of St John Chrysostom and St Gregory the Theologian…
Of particular interest was the visit to the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican Musum. Of course, the pilgrims could not examine all 4 million pieces in the collection, but what we did see was still impressive.
Especially interesting was the excursion to the new excavations at the Vatican, which had to be arranged six months in advance: the first Cathedral of St Peter was built by St Constantine, Equal-to-the-Apostles; it is presumed that the altar was based right on top of the relics of Apostle Peter. At the beginning of the 16th century, this cathedral was dismantled, and the new cathedral built in such a way that the altar would likewise be over the same spot, but oriented in the opposite direction. The idea arose in the beginning of the 20th century to find the relics of the Apostle, but the dig did not reveal anything. A new search which began in the 1970’s led to the discovery of the bones of St Peter, which it is believed were buried by St Constantine the Great. One can now view the bones only during such a tour, and our pilgrims sang the laudation to Apostle Peter under the main altar of the Vatican Cathedral.
Tuesday, June 22, was devoted to visiting the cultural and historic sites of the Eternal City. The Coliseum now contains a cross in memory of the countless saints martyred there for Christ.
On Wednesday the 23rd, Divine Liturgy began the day in the Catacomb of St Priscilla. The service was led by Fr Yaroslav as the pilgrims sang. Here, in a small room without icons, frescoes or mosaics, the fullness of the Church of Christ was nonetheless palpable. In this damp underground chamber, the worshipers prayed movingly and quietly, sensing their bond with all the Christians of all times and places, a feeling that rarely comes to the soul, as the participants of this divine service later attested to.
Not far from the Papal Church of Santa Maria Maggiore (there are four in all in Rome, but visiting the fourth of them was not in the schedule), is a church and monastery where St Cyril Equal-to-the-Apostles, Enlightener of the Slavs, lived during his sojourn in Rome. Among the main relics of this church is a piece of wood to which the Lord was bound when He was beaten.
Then a bus took the pilgrims to the city of Bari. On the way, they stopped into Monte Cassino, a monastery founded by St Benedict of Nursia, and a little place called Formis, where there is a church containing rare, well-preserved Byzantine frescoes.
On Thursday, Divine Liturgy was celebrated at the altar under which the relics of St Nicholas, the Miracle-worker of Myra, are found.
In addition to Fr Vladimir, Rector of the Russian podvorie in Bari, which earlier this year the Italian authorities returned to the control of the Russian Orthodox Church, there were five other pilgrim groups from Russia visiting. Every Thursday, Russian Orthodox Christians are allowed to celebrate Liturgy over the relics. This is well known to Russians, which is why all hurry to the church early every Thursday. The crypt, which is located under the Catholic church, was overfilled with worshipers. Seven priests celebrated Liturgy, and almost everyone partook of the Holy Gifts. And, just as during vigil the evening before, one sensed the unity of the Church, of the Russian Orthodox Church: Russian worshipers from all over the world gathered to pray at the relics of St Nicholas, partaking of the Holy Mysteries, praying over the Miracle-worker’s relics for their needs and their sufferings, blessing icons for those who could not join them there.
On Friday, the 21 pilgrims went to Salerno, near the ancient city of Naples, but unfortunately were unable to venerate the relics of Apostle Matthew the Evanglist, since his crypt was closed for renovation. The pilgrims then embarked on a boat to Amalfi, which has for over a century been an independent republic south of Italy. There they prayed over the relics of St Andrew the First-called. In Amalfi, his memory is celebrated six times a year, and each time, the relics issue myrrh. As it happened, it was the eve of one of these celebrations, and the venerable head of the Apostle was prepared for a procession of the cross, and our pilgrims were able to venerate it. Since this miracle is little known, in contrast with the myrrh of St Nicholas, they do not dilute it before giving it to the pilgrims. After a moleben to Apostle Andrew, the Rector of the Russian Orthodox church in Naples, Fr Andrei, handed out cotton bearing this myrrh.
Saturday was devoted to an excursion to the ruins of Pompei, buried under 25 meters of ash from Vesuvius in the year 79 which preserved the city in remarkable form. Most of the frescoes and other finds in Pompei were taken to Naples Museum, but the general atmosphere of the ancient city remains. The pilgrims took the rest of the day to rest and prepare for the return flight home.